As expected, the Royals made small ripples instead of splashes in free agency heading into the 2011 season, including relatively small-dollar deals with outfielders Jeff Francouer and Melky Cabrera. The two outfielders are strikingly similar in that they both arrived in the majors in 2005 heralded as potential stars, but have been disappointments ever since. The switch-hitting Cabrera was an everyday outfielder for the Yankees for four full seasons in spite of being a mediocre hitter at his best and a serious offensive liability at his worst. His reputation for strong defense likely helped keep him in the lineup. He was sent to the Braves prior to 2010, and struggled through a dismal season in the National League, batting a painful .255/.317/.354 (83 OPS+) with scary bad defensive metrics (-15.9 UZR) in 147 games. He was released by Atlanta a week after their season ended.
His poor performance last season meant the price tag was not high for the new free agent, and Royals GM Dayton Moore signed Cabrera to a one-year deal for $1.25 million (with $250K in potential bonuses). The Royals apparently also had to promise Cabrera the starting gig in center field; an anonymous club official told the Kansas City Star, “That’s how you convince these bounce-back guys to sign. They have other offers. So you give them a chance to play regularly. Now, what they do with it is up to them.” Of course, hopes that Cabrera will bounce “back” to effectiveness assumes that Cabrera was once a productive player.
Promising a fringe player the center field job in December was a questionable move even when the other options at the time were Mitch Maier, Gregor Blanco and Jarrod Dyson, but it became much worse a few days later when the Royals acquired Lorenzo Cain in the Zack Greinke deal. Suddenly the Royals had a somewhat exciting option for center, but they were quick to quell expectations that Cain had the inside track to be the starter. Without saying it directly, Royals brass have made it apparent they will keep their promise to Cabrera regarding regular playing time, and Cabrera has made it a little easier on the team by having a strong spring so far.
It may be tough for Royals fans to feel that Cabrera is doing anything besides blocking Cain in center field. The best case scenario may be for Cabrera to play at a decent enough level that he can be traded at some point this season. It is worth noting Cabrera will not be a free agent at the end of 2011. His lack of service time means he will be arbitration eligible, but still under club control. The main thing Cabrera still has going for him is age: 26 years worth, which means he could be entering his most productive few years as a baseballer. Moore is banking on it for both Cabrera and Francouer, telling the Star, “They haven’t peaked out. There is upside there.” For better or worse, Cabrera will be given every chance to prove Moore right this season.